What you need to know:
- Research has shown that women with disabilities face triple challenges in their quest for political office.
- They have to peel off the layer of stigma of being perceived as incapable leaders, deal with socio-cultural barriers of being a woman, and financial challenges.
I meet Margaret Mwikali-Makai a few minutes past 8am at a restaurant in Masii town, Machakos County.
She had just driven past me in a van branded with her photo and party name. She is one of two women, out of 14 candidates, eyeing the Member of County Assembly (MCA) seat for Masii Ward. It is different for her though. Besides being one of two women eyeing the seat, she has a physical disability. We head for her office, adjacent to the hotel.
Research has shown that women with disabilities face triple challenges in their quest for political leadership. They have to peel off the layer of stigma of being perceived as incapable leaders, deal with socio-cultural barriers of being a woman, and financial challenges, more than the ordinary woman.
In the campaign photo, she wears a red dress, the colour of her party, Jubilee. Her slogan is endearing: ‘Rafiki na mtetezi wa wanyonge (Friend and defender of the marginalised)’.
‘Makai’ is a name given to her by the community for staunchly defending their rights. It loosely means ‘my boys’. But in her context, she says the community equates her to “a man who is a strong defender of his people.”
She had to adopt it and have it included in her identity card.
In 2017, the Wiper party nominated her to the Machakos County Assembly. “This time (2022), my people said they want to elect me. They did not want me to be nominated again,” she quips.
“They advised me against vying as an independent candidate and proposed I join Jubilee Party.”
She was awarded a direct Jubilee ticket, which she says didn’t demand of her to pay nomination fees. Despite her disability, the people of Masii look up to her.
She has held different leadership roles over the years as a councillor, vice-chair of National Government Affirmative Fund in the office of the Machakos County Woman Representative and chair of the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Mwala sub-county branch, a position she has held since 2006.
War on SGBV
These roles have given her a chance to connect with the people of Masii. The community is also aware that she is a no-nonsense leader on matters sexual and gender-based violence, she says.
“They know I do not condone perpetrators negotiating with the victim’s family,” she adds.
So, how popular is she?
I spend a day with her on the campaign trail to find out, and establish the challenges she faces.
There are nine sub-locations in Masii Ward namely Muusini, Uuni, Mithini, Mbaani and Utiithini. Others are Embui, Kavumbu, Kithangani and Mithanga.
Her schedule is tight. She is visiting four groups across three sub-locations- Mithini Utiithini and Uuni. She sets off at a quarter to 11am.
Normally, her campaigns start at 9am, but our interview this morning has interrupted her schedule. We are accompanied by two of her supporters on the campaign trail—Daniel Kavoi, the Nyumba Kumi chairperson in Kavumbu Sub-location, who doubles up as her driver for the day, and Richard Ndolo, the chairperson of the Masii market.
“I am always accompanied by one or two supporters. My enemies know my weakness. They know if they accost me, I cannot run,” she divulges.
She has not faced any violence so far, although her competitors’ supporters have hit her with propaganda claiming she is “a disabled woman who cannot deliver.”
Our first stop is at a widow’s home in Mithini. We arrive here at 11.25am. About 70 people are converged under a mango tree.
For the next one hour and 30 minutes, Ms Mwikali listens to the needs of her people and responds with an outline of her development agenda.
“I intend to ensure the orphaned children get bursaries,” she tells them. I will also ensure the youth get proper skills through the polytechnics to enable them either employ themselves, or secure jobs,” she says in the Kamba dialect.
She pledges to scout for investors to process their mango produce, something she has already done for 80 other mango farmers under the Masii Horticultural Farmers’ Cooperative Society. They process mangoes into crisps.
“All I need her to do for us is to provide our children with jobs. That is my most immediate concern,” says Agnes Kitheka, one of the participants.
She says she will vote for Ms Mwikali because she has been distributing chicken to widows to start poultry businesses.
Next, she meets another group of women and men at a supporter’s house in Utiithini.
Here, Apostle Justus Kasinga of Kingdom Citizens Church chairs the meeting. He introduces four women who have been selected as coordinators to head grassroots campaigns in their area.
“We support you and you should be assured of a win,” Apostle Kasinga tells Ms Mwikali.
The meeting ends at 2.18pm
As we plan to leave, Josephine Mbithe, a widow follows us.
“We want something to boost us. I am the chairperson of a widows’ group and we have nothing. We need your support,” she tells Ms Mwikali, who responds by assuring her that widows’ issues will be a priority once she is voted in and since she herself is a widow, she can relate to their issues.
At this point, the energy reservoirs have diminished. It is time to recharge. Ms Mwikali drives to Masii town for lunch at a local restaurant as I also replenish.
By 4pm, we are en route to Uuni. A group of persons with disabilities have invited her to find out her plans for them. This is her third meeting for the day.
At the meeting, I meet Jacqueline Mwende, the woman whose cruel case of domestic violence came to the limelight in 2016 when her husband chopped off both her hands.
Ms Mwende is one of the 35 persons with disabilities constituting Upendo Group. The group also includes caregivers of persons with disabilities. She tells me had it not been for Ms Mwikali, her case would not have been known. She is the one who invited the media to highlight her situation.
“I’m confident she will win. People love her. And I know she will not forget us,” she says.
Should she win, the group calls on her to provide them with assistive devices and ensure their children access bursaries and secure employment. They also plead with her to facilitate their enrolment with the cash transfer programme.
She spends an hour with them before departing for Yoani village in Mithini Sub-location at 5.18pm. She has a meeting with youth, the last engagement for the day.
Supports sports teams
We find a group of 22 young men who constitute Yoani Sharks Football Club, seated on the opposite side of Yoani Dam.
They want her to meet them there. They expect her to cross over by jumping over a rill on the far end of the dam.
“You see, these are the real problems I face on the ground,” she says as she makes a call to one of them to ask them to cross over to where we are.
For them, they want her to support their team with a ball and uniform. They are also looking for a patron and a sponsor, both of whom they seek to find through Ms Mwikali. They also want her to create jobs for them.
I ask them whether they are registered voters and 17 of them raise their hands. I follow up with a question about why they would vote for her and what they are doing to popularise her.
“I am tired of poor leadership. I will give her a chance and see if she delivers or she will end up like the rest,” says James Nzuki, one of the youth.
It's now 6.17pm and we drive back to town, about 20 minutes away. We part ways some few minutes before 7pm in Masii town, where Ms Mwikali is buying some fruits before heading home.
The story was produced with support of a grant from the Voice for Women and Girls’ Rights-Kenya; [email protected]